Essay 1

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Vanessa Mendoza-Alcocer
Professor Oforlea
English 108
Encountering Patriarchy
Texts written by female authors, particularly feminists, tend to have an underlying theme
of women being oppressed by patriarchal issues. Female authors who generally do not focus on
the oppression of women tend to have their writings ‘marked by patriarchy.’ While Jamaica
Kincaid explicitly criticizes how cultures and societies enforce patriarchal roles onto women in
“Girl”, Judith Ortiz Cofer’s writing is ‘marked by patriarchy.’ In Cofer’s “American History” the
main themes are racial and social issues: unknowingly, her character is ignorant of the gender
role patriarchy and her culture have bestowed on her. Both deliberately and unintentionally,
through narrating experiences of young girls, Kincaid and Cofer convey the strict roles
patriarchy places on females.
Being ‘marked by patriarchy’ means someone or something is perpetuating a patriarchal
standard without conscious knowledge of it. A common example is all the paperwork one must
fill out in applications, doctor visits, etc. These forms ask the individual to state whether they are
Mr. or Miss./Ms./Mrs.: Females are required to state their marital status through these titles—
Men, on the other hand, have no requirement. Women need to reach a certain age or get married
to obtain a certain title: men naturally become Mr. from birth. Other examples can be any event
in a text where a woman is, acceptingly or grudgingly, behaving the way the men in their society
and patriarchal values have trained her to act; and without the knowledge of patriarchy being the
The gender roles begin at birth but they are not entirely explicit until the female has
reached puberty; this is when the patriarchal hegemony begins to have a tighter grip. In
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Kincaid’s narrative, a young girl is being taught how to complete numerous chores and tasks to
ensure she will not become an unmarried harlot. The mother—traditionally known to be
responsible to teach daughters—overtly tells her daughter why she needs to learn everything she
is telling her: to “prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on
becoming” (Kincaid 103). The words from mother to daughter are harsh; the word “slut” is said
three times and then suggested in the end. Typically when harsh words are used the speaker
intends to have a strong impact. Kincaid also uses punctuation as a way to also make a bigger
impact. She writes the narrative in one long sentence; using semi-colons, it reads as if the mother
is rapidly speaking. The mother is entirely used to how her patriarchal society regulates her
actions: traditionally, her daughter will have to do the same.
Puberty also signals Elena’s life will face strong patriarchal restraints. Although Cofer
focuses on racial and social tensions, patriarchy marks her narrative. After Elena recognizes a
new family has moved in next door, she becomes infatuated with the new boy. When her mother
tells her she is acting inappropriately, Elena realizes something: “Since I had turned fourteen and
started menstruating my mother had been more vigilant than ever” (Cofer 304). Ever since, the
mother has instructed her to keep a high level of modesty. Cofer admits Elena is going through a
confusing phase and must be careful but she ignores the fact that being female marks all aspects
of her life differently than males. From then on, the narrative focuses more on culture, race, and
class. Even then her experiences are affected by the way society treats women. In alluding to the
assassination of President Kennedy, Cofer takes focus off gender and more on political issues.
Kincaid understands that patriarchy is a dogma that seeks to control women. In general,
she describes how men envision the perfect woman/ wife/ homemaker. In most cultures women
are responsible to feed and please their husbands. The speaker in “Girl” recalls her mother telling
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her “this is how you set a table for dinner . . . lunch . . . breakfast; this is how to behave in the
presence of men who don’t know you very well” (Kincaid 103). The speaker realizes her life
entails cooking for her family, cleaning the home and keeping the family well dressed. Not only
does she have to make the home comfortable but she also needs to please her husband. Pleasing
the husband does not necessarily mean sex; it also means acting the part of a respectful slave.
Wives are required to act modestly and prudently in front of their husband’s colleagues.
Culturally, women need to be careful about being identified as promiscuous. All in all, by
tradition and social principles women become enslaved automatons.
In Cofer’s “American History” becoming a patriarchal woman seems inevitable. She does
not question why her mother criticizes her actions often; she does not question whether her
gender affects how her neighbors treat her; Elena seems oblivious to the fact that being female
affects her experiences. In her narration, Elena admits she desires the life of the old Jewish
couple that used to live in the home next to her apartment building: “he sat at the table and read
his newspapers while she fixed the meal” (Cofer 303). She imagines herself and Eugene living
together and living out the life of the old man and his wife. Elena automatically dreams of a
highly patriarchal marriage. She sees no implications; to her patriarchy does not exist.
In order to become an ideal woman, promiscuity must be evaded. The speaker in “Girl”
understands what needs to be done so she is not seen as a “slut”. You must smile a certain way;
you must scrutinize what comes out of your mouth; you must dress prudently; you must act
reserved and respectful in front of everyone; if you do not follow these rules to the T then you
will most likely become “kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread” (Kincaid 104).
In all cases promiscuity will be the downfall and there will be no one to blame but the self. The
only time and place for the woman to act sexual is privately with the husband. As the phrase
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goes “she must be a lady in the streets but a freak in the sheets.” In “American History” Elena’s
mother understand the dangers of showing affections: she warns Elena; “You are heading for
humiliation and pain” (Cofer 306). Cofer may have intended this warning to foreshadow the
racism Elena faces at the end but most Latina mother warn against promiscuity in order to
maintain a respectful identity.
Having Elena oblivious of her gender implications could possibly mean that she does not
find her gender roles to be a disadvantage. Instead it seems Elena hopes for a traditional
marriage. In the text, Cofer’s final sentences says “I could see the white snow falling like a lace
veil over it face. I did not look down to see it turning gray as it touched the ground below”
(Cofer 307). This could be symbolism for Elena’s view on life. She would rather not look at the
gray limitations of a strictly traditional and patriarchal marriage. Elena believes her dream life
will be exactly like the women’s lives in Gone with the Wind, white. She feels that the only way
her dream life can be destroyed will be by racial tensions, class issues, and politics.
There are women who do not think similar to Elena or live the life Elena dreams about.
There seems to be no way out of it: this is when religion is used as an outlet. In many cultures,
women feel they can exercise power through religious functions. The mothers in both texts
express seriousness about religion: In “Girl” the mother asks her daughter if she is singing benna
in Sunday school; benna originates from the Caribbean and typically focuses on disgraceful
rumors and gossip. Later on, getting or not listening to a possible response, the mother tells the
speaker “don’t sing benna in Sunday school” (Kincaid 103). The mother cares how her daughter
acts in Sunday school and possibly in any religious function. The importance of religion is also
expressed in “American History.” President Kennedy has just been assassinated and the mother
can only find going to church as the way to show some power over what has occurred: “Hija, the
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president has been killed. We must show respect. He was a great man. Come to church with me
tonight” (Cofer 306). Elena, rather not go to church instead she rather go spend time with a boy.
She does not seem to understand how attending religious functions may be the only form the
mother, and other women in the building, have of expressing freedom and independence. When
the daughter refuses the mother stays home while both wait for the father to come home from
working the late shift. There is no such indication that the husband would be someone the mother
will go to church with: she would rather go with Elena, other women, or not go at all.
With everything that patriarchy decides in society it become rather difficult for any
woman to escape it. Typically women follow the tradition in fear of being reproached by their
society. Making a decision whether to follow something or not is usually based on the culture. In
many minority cultures in America, patriarchy tends to have a stronger hold on females. In other
cultures it has become common not to follow certain traditional patriarchal aspects in life: not
taking the husbands surname; using a professional title instead of Mrs. or Ms; being the “bread
winner” and the husband is a stay at home parent. But the fact of the matter is that patriarchy
places strict roles on females since the day they were born, and more explicitly, when they begin
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Works Cited
Cofer, Ortiz Judith. “American History.” Literature The Human Experience. Ed. Richard
Abcarian, Marvin Klotz, Samuel Cohen. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. 302-307.
Kincaid, Jamaica. “Girl.” Literature The Human Experience. Ed. Richard Abcarian, Marvin
Klotz, Samuel Cohen. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. 103-104. Print.